The Spanish government declared a "state of alarm" yesterday for the first time in three decades, assuming sweeping powers that allowed the military to take control of the country's airspace and order Spain's striking air traffic controllers to work or face prison.
Military law was applied from midday yesterday, allowing them to be arrested and charged if they did not return to work. Spain's military code allows sentences of up to two years for those who disobey an order to work from the defence ministry. "If they do not go to work, they will be committing a crime of disobedience according to the military penal code," the deputy prime minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, warned after an emergency cabinet meeting.
The measure appeared to work. By late yesterday evening, Rubalcaba said that more than 90% of the controllers had returned to work. But he added that it could still take up to 48 hours for air traffic to return to normal after Spanish airspace reopened during the afternoon. It was also unclear if strikers would seek fresh ways to continue their protest.
In a country that has 20% unemployment and is suffering massive cuts in government spending, the 2,300 well-paid air traffic controllers are hardly gaining public sympathy for their cause. They earned an extraordinary average of €350,000 each last year, thanks to generous overtime rules. Those who worked most overtime earned up to €900,000, with 160 earning above €600,000.
So what has upset them? The government passed a law restricting overtime and tightening working conditions earlier this year. They also plan to privatise Barcelona and Madrid airports. Even if they only receive their basic pay following the changes, that is a hell of a lot more than 90+ per cent of Spanish workers not to mention the 20% who are unemployed.
For a union trying to make its point, calling a wild cat strike at the start of a public holiday was perhaps not a clever move. Most unions will tell you that the only way to win your cause is with public support. Without it you are battling with two enemies of which the public are the ones you need to worry most about.